Legal Issues With Roommates

It's important to understand the different legal buzz words that apply to tenants and roommates.

If you’re like most tenants, you’ve got one roommate or more. And chances are that the names on your mailbox will change at least once before you, too, move on. Unfortunately, many landlords aren’t as flexible as you would like when it comes to adding new roommates or letting others out of a lease.

Many legal questions come up when you share your home with roommates, including:

  • your legal obligations and responsibilities with respect to your roommates

  • what to do if your roommate takes off, leaving you with the rent to pay and maybe damages to cover

  • moving in a roommate and what to do if your landlord objects

  • what to do if your roommate becomes nasty or won’t pay the rent, and

  • whether or not you can rent space to a roomer.

To get started, it's important to understand the different legal buzz words that apply to tenants and roommates because your rights and responsibilities will vary depending on the term that fits your situation. For example, tenants can make some demands on their landlords that subtenants cannot, as explained below. Here’s a list of the essential ones, with nutshell definitions. 

Original tenant. The initial tenant (or tenants) who entered into the lease or rental agreement (oral or written). This is our own short-cut term with no precise legal meaning.

Tenant. Someone who has signed a lease or a rental agreement, or was part of an oral rental agreement, or whose residency has otherwise been accepted by the landlord (by accepting rent, for example). Since he has a direct relationship with the landlord, a tenant can hold the landlord to all the landlord’s promises (in the lease or rental agreement).

Cotenants. Two or more tenants who rent the same property under the same lease or rental agreement. Each is 100% responsible for carry­ing out the agreement (see “joint and several liability,” below), including paying the rent in full. Someone who is added to another’s lease or rental agreement becomes the original tenant’s (or tenants’) cotenant.

Subtenant. Someone who rents from a tenant. The tenant becomes the subtenant’s landlord. The subtenant may take over for a portion of the lease term (for the summer, for example, with the tenant returning in September), or may live there at the same time as the tenant. Sub­tenants have an indirect relationship with the main landlord, and therefore cannot enforce many of the lease or rental agreement terms.

Roommates. Two or more people living under the same roof and sharing rent and expenses. Roommates are usually cotenants (they’ve signed the same lease or rental agreement), but a roommate may instead be a subtenant of the original tenant. Unless the landlord has accepted the presence of the roommate (by making the person a cotenant or explicitly or tacitly allowing the subtenancy), a roommate has the legal status of a long-term guest, with few if any legal protections.

Joint and several liability. This refers to the sharing of legal obliga­tions by two or more people. Cotenants are “jointly and severally liable” for rent and other obligations of the lease, which means that each one can be held responsible for the misdeeds of the others and the landlord can look to any one of them to pay the entire rent. This is true even if your lease or rental agreement does not include this clause. It applies to oral leases, too. 

Roomer. A person who rents space in your home while you live there. If you are a tenant, the roomer (sometimes called “lodger”) is your subtenant, and you are that person’s landlord. In most situations, landlords may legally prohibit roomers.

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